Tony Leighton is a Canadian writer happily retired and attempting to help others feel the same.

Treasures You Can Hold in Your Hand

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Until the other day when I came across a four-page letter that began with this paragraph — printed on paper — that I wrote to my eldest son in 2003 when he was 16, I was pretty much in the digital camp.

I have more than 25,000 digital photographs on hard drives. Fortress-like piles of paper I formerly printed for my work disappeared eight years ago thanks to a sheet-fed scanner. I almost never use mail, only email. In Evernote, a document-filing application in the cloud, I have more than 15,000 files saved over the past 10 or 12 years. If all of this was on paper, I might hate myself.

Theoretically, I can find almost anything. Tags and keywords are a digital docu-geek’s best friend. But I don’t find things. I’m too busy storing new things. All those photos sit unseen because there are too many of them. The same goes for the thousands of Evernote files. The hoarder in me feels a perverse satisfaction that they are all there. But “there” might as well be nowhere.

And yet, Mr. Wishful still thinks there’s hope.

In the meantime, I’m slowly edging back toward paper. Just putting that thought into words feels heretical, although I’m leaning toward paper books again after a some years of preaching the superiority of digital reading, so maybe there’s a trend here.

I wish not to romanticize analogue. It can be an immense pain. There is undeniable relief in being done with vast accumulations of paper photos and documents. I never want to own another filing cabinet. Nor do I want shelves burgeoning under the weight of decaying photo albums. Both are mausoleums.

On the other hand, I want pragmatic accessibility, a practical solution for an emotional need.

I want to make sense of the past. I want to see what it took to arrive here, and how that might bear on wherever I’m going. I want not to live in the past, but to recall it, to stir a depth of emotion that lays dormant except when taken by surprise. I want to plumb those depths with purpose every now and then, like an archeologist poking studiously at a bone pile. How did I feel back then? Why? What else was going on? How do I feel about that now? Where have those feelings been? What can I do with them? Did I deal with them? Am I pleased with where they reside? What can I do now to create more of the best ones? What really matters?

So — now that I’ve seen that heartfelt four-page letter to my son (with whom, I am pleased to report, I have a loving relationship in this, his 32nd year, a few months in advance of his first child being born) — I have a new intention: to remember the efficiency of paper for treasured items that would otherwise lay forever obscured in the digital silt.

(The possibility, of course, is that all the silt will, after my death, be deleted with a backspace, or overlooked when the piles of detritus go off to the dump. I won’t think about that right now.)

Is this an age thing? Probably. Nostalgia apparently grows with age. I’m imagining a nicely made wooden box or two of important cards and letters from the past, and more in the future, building gradually like a repository of life-affirming artifacts. If I want my heart touched, I can open the lids and flip through the potent contents.

Mr. Wishful also wants to finally go through those thousands of digital photos, so he can create a printed book for every year since I owned my first digital camera. That’s 16 years ago. Yearbooks. History books. Heart-touching books. It’s all sitting there in the silt ready to be lifted into the light. Life recorded and worthy of recall.

We’ll see. Past performance does not bode well. In preparation for moving households, I recently had to confront several large boxes containing hundreds of family photographs, the old kind, printed on paper. Half remain unsorted. They’re now in the new house, in their mini-mausoleums, possibly to be inherited by my unfortunate offspring, possibly to join the detritus on the dump run.

My instinct — and it pulls on me like a winch — is to digitize them. So I can easily find them. Maybe. Someday.

Something in me is yearning for the opposite of “Never look back.”


Vocabuteria: tranche

Growing Up